Monday, March 11, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: James by Percival Everett

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

I love re-imaginings of classic stories, and have been excited to read James by Percival Everett, which will be released on March 19. This is a re-imagined Huckleberry Finn, told from the viewpoint of Jim.

Jim is an enslaved man with secrets. He is self-educated (highly educated) and devoted to his wife and daughter. He is also entangled with Huck (as in Twain’s novel.)

Jim learns that he is going to be sold, separated from his family, so he runs off to a nearby island to hide. There, he meets up with Huck, who has just faked his own death to escape from his cruel drunkard of a father. Now Jim knows he will likely be charged not only with running away, but also with killing Huck. The two flee the island.

Jim’s goal is to find a way to earn money to purchase his wife and daughter. Huck’s goal is adventure. While roughly following the timeline of Huckleberry Finn, this novel follows Jim rather than Huck. His adventures and close calls are even more compelling than Huck’s.

The novel shows the agency of enslaved people and the secretly subversive ways they undermine the institution of slavery. It also shows the fear and loss that are embedded in their daily existence. One of their tools is language. Whenever around Whites, they speak “slave,’ but among themselves, they speak in an educated, grammatical way that allows them to mock the ignorance of Whites. One of the most unsettling and even frightening things that Jim can do is to speak “correctly” to a White man. Language is power. Liberation will ultimately require choosing/claiming his own name, James.

This is a powerful novel that turns Mark Twain’s classic on its head. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Loving the Dead and Gone by Judith Turner-Yamamoto

Set in small-town North Carolina in the 1960s, Loving the Dead and Gone by Judith Turner-Yamamoto is a touching novel of fraught family relationships that explores how lives are upended as survivors react to death.

The story is set in motion when a young man is killed in a car crash. His seventeen-year-old widow, Darlene, is adrift, crushed by the fact that no one will allow her to fully mourn. She is expected to move on and stop talking about something that makes everyone uncomfortable. But Darlene’s love is still so fresh and new that she can’t possibly let go. She keeps reaching for a way to connect with the dead man, to hold on. 

Multiple viewpoints are employed to explore the aftermath of this tragedy as its consequences ripple through other families. Clayton is a factory worker who found the cars and the dead man. He is haunted by the death, but has no way to vent his emotions, until Darlene approaches him wanting to know more about the setting of the car crash. Darlene feels that in some way, her husband is trying to communicate with her through Clayton.

Clayton’s family life is a mess. He is married to a woman, Berta Mae, who is warped by her own childhood trauma. She has always been trying to win her mother’s love and failing. Now she feels her teenage daughter is rejecting her as well. And her husband has pulled away. Berta Mae is desperate to be loved and is growing as embittered as her mother.

Berta Mae’s mother, Aurilla, married the wrong man. She lived a long life of misery which turned her bitter and mean, and left her unable to love Berta. Aurilla’s husband has also (finally) died, and her reaction to his death, after a long marriage, is the exact opposite of Darlene’s reaction to widowhood, after a marriage of less than a year.

There is a pervasive loneliness and hurt in the novel, and the reader is propelled along waiting for redemption for the characters. While the young man’s death starts a downward spiral for the characters, it also serves as a catalyst, breaking them out of their ruts and giving them a second chance at life.

This is a beautiful story, thoughtfully told.